As MLB returns to Cuba, the legacy of Minnie Minoso -- the Cuban Jackie Robinson -- lives on

Minnie Minoso, the first black Cuban to play the major leagues and the first black player in White Sox history, became one of the first Latin Americans to play in an MLB All-Star Game when he made the team as a rookie in 1951. AP Photo

MESA, Ariz. -- This is a story of the missing man, of an opportunity just missed, of kismet unmet. That's because, as Major League Baseball prepares to embark upon its return to Cuba in a classic bit of baseball diplomacy between two countries with an abiding interest in the game, the one man who personified that shared love of baseball will be absent. Minnie Minoso, one of MLB's best players in the 1950s, passed away last year at the age of 92 (ish).

"It's definitely bittersweet," said Charlie Minoso, Minnie's youngest son. "I always hoped my father would be involved in some way, as a goodwill ambassador. I'm happy to see this game coming to fruition after all these decades, but for me it's a little incomplete because he's not there."

Born outside of Havana but eventually a star who shone brightest in Chicago, Minoso was the one person whose baseball legacy fully belongs to both Cuba and the United States, and even though it's has been almost 70 years since he left the land of his birth, Cuban ballplayers vouch for the permanence of his legacy there.

"He's incredibly famous in Cuba," said San Diego Padres shortstop Alexei Ramirez, who defected from Cuba in 2007 and signed with the Chicago White Sox. "Every Cuban knows the history of Minnie. I remember looking it up, and hearing things, and learning that he had a bolero -- that, when he hit, 'the ball would dance, cha-cha-cha.'"

Jose Abreu, the slugging first baseman who joined the White Sox in 2014 after defecting from Cuba in 2013, summed up Minoso lasting legacy on the island: "He's a hero there," said Abreu. "He opened the door for us."

That respect is a product of Minoso's many decades in the game and a recognition of his broad experience, but it is also one of loyalty born of direct experience among the Cubans who came after him and also thrived with the White Sox.

Minoso came to the U.S. to play in the Negro Leagues immediately after World War II ended, moved on to the Cleveland Indians organization, but became a big-league star with the White Sox after getting traded to Chicago in 1951. Already famous as "The Cuban Comet," it was during his run on Chicago's South Side that Minoso earned his more enduring nickname, "Mr. White Sox."

Spend some time looking at his case and his unredeemed worthiness, and you'll find there is no good excuse for why Minoso isn't already in the Hall of Fame. He was one of the American League's three best players in the 1950s, and that was after he had already lost at least five years of his major league career to racism and the reserve clause, having had to first play in the Negro Leagues (for three seasons) and then cool his jets in the Indians' farm system. And that's without getting into the seasons he subsequently spent after his MLB career starring as a player-manager in the Mexican League.

"It's funny, because he always said, 'I want to be in the Hall of Fame, but alive, not dead,'" Ramirez recalled. "I have to smile at that, but the numbers speak for themselves -- he should be in."

Minoso was rightly proud of his accomplishments

"I remember, the day we unveiled the statue for him [at U.S. Cellular Field in 2004], how he cried," said White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. "He said, 'I will be here forever,' and how much that meant to him. Minnie was a big part of the renaissance of the franchise in the 1950s. If Ernie Banks was Mr. Cub, Minnie Minoso was Mr. White Sox. Even though he didn't play his entire career here, just virtually his entire [MLB] career, Minnie was the White Sox. People who never saw him play, loved him. When he was in his 80s, approaching 90, people who had no idea still loved him.

A cornerstone of Minoso's legacy is that he was the Jackie Robinson of Latin America, not only making himself the first great Cuban player in MLB history, but also the first black Latin. In the last interview he gave, a little more than a week before his last trip to spring training and published just days before he died, Minoso was frank about the racism that permeated both society and the game when he played. But he was also plainspoken about how and why he responded to it with a smile. And it's that quality that perhaps explains why so many people inside the game and out remain committed to their memory of the man.

"What he did for baseball, not just in Cuba or the U.S., but in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, what he transmitted was love," Ramirez said. "And at a time when there was so much racism, for him to do that, that's unbelievable."

That love, of the game but more important for the people it brings together as well as for the people who played it, was the secret sauce for the White Sox organization over the last decade or so, as Minoso helped them attract Cuban players and then helped those players adjust to life in the big leagues and in the Windy City.

"Having Minnie with us helped us attract Cuban players like Ramirez and Abreu, but also the Cuban players who came to us, like Jose Contreras," Reinsdorf said. "He eased their way. Coming to Chicago was made a lot easier [for players] because of Minnie's presence -- particularly Ramirez and Abreu, who came right into Chicago with no time in the minor leagues and had to adjust to a foreign country. I think their performance would have been a lot worse if not for Minnie, because then they'd have to be worrying about other things. Minnie made sure that they had nothing to worry about off the field."

Abreu said that Minoso imparted plenty of invaluable advice about how to adapt to life in his adopted country. "I think the most important advice that he gave was always to respect the institution, the organization, and the name I carry on my chest, but also always be proud of being a Cuban," Abreu said. "I'll always remember those words, because they're something that gave me strength and the confidence to come here every day and do my best."

For Ramirez, Minoso was more than just a role model. "Everything I am, I owe to him," Ramirez said. "He was a father to me, especially because at that time my father was still in Cuba. So he filled that role for me, teaching me life lessons, teaching me everything."

So as President Barack Obama and the Tampa Bay Rays prepare for their trip to Havana, where the Rays will play against the Cuban national team on March 22, the lone glum note is that Minoso won't be part of the delegation from the country he embraced to the country of his birth. But his example reminds us all that baseball fans in Cuba and the U.S. share something more than just a love of the game. We share a claim to his joy and concern for others, guided by his relentless enthusiasm. Which is why it's no surprise that, shortly after they became aware of the exhibition game, the Minoso family hatched a plan with an old friend and beneficiary of Minnie's generosity to make sure that Minnie Minoso was included in the proceedings, even if it's just symbolically.

"My dad's lifelong friend, Steve Cohen, reached out to say, 'Hey, I'm part of the delegation with President Obama, headed to Havana,'" said Charlie Minoso. "'I just really wish your father was coming, but he'll be there in spirit.' And I said, maybe these little symbols of him can go, and I asked if he'd be interested, and he said, 'Absolutely!'"

Cohen is not just any family friend, but Congressman Steven Cohen, of Memphis, Tennessee, perhaps the biggest Minnie Minoso fan this country can claim.

"Minnie Minoso has been my baseball idol and my hero all my life," Cohen said. "I first met Minnie when I was not quite six years old. He saw me, a young man who had polio, who was on crutches, and a White Sox fan at an exhibition game at Memphis. He had a baseball sent to me by another player -- because of the segregation laws in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1955, he used an intermediary. I went and thanked him and found out it was Minnie, and from then on we had a relationship. I had a hero, and he was kind. He was kind to me. It bred in me an appreciation of the need for civil rights and the absurdity of the discrimination of segregation in Memphis, but also bred a love of Cuba and Cubans.

"I was hoping Minnie could be back in Cuba and go to Havana and go to baseball games himself," Cohen added. "I took one of his No. 9 'Seven Decades in Baseball' hats with me to Cuba when I went with Secretary [of State John] Kerry in August to raise the flag. But I'll be bringing a couple more hats and trying to give them to President Obama and President Castro at the game, to hopefully wear there. I think it would be appropriate symbolism, him being the Cuban Comet."

Cohen will also be bringing Minoso memorabilia to give to Cuban players during his time there.

"It's a great gesture," Ramirez said when told about the keepsakes. "After all, Minnie was Cuban. Since he can't be there, to be able to give him a presence is really great."

Respecting the game is a bedrock ethic of baseball, but Minoso is a man who to this day commands the respect of the game and the countries that play it. As our country formally re-establishes its connections with the country of Minoso's birth, we might also remember the impact this unofficial ambassador to and from Cuba and the United States made upon the game. Whether Cooperstown grants him a plaque or not, Minnie Minoso's legacy is one of immortality, not merely the kind you earn on the field, but through the life that he led both on and off it.